Mississippians prepare for impact of coronavirus on food supply

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Freddie Mitchell, a Vicksburg Warren School District employee, wears a mask and gloves as she prepares to help deliver food to students in the school district Wednesday, March 18, 2020.

VICKSBURG – While people everywhere stockpile their kitchen cabinets as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases continues to rise, organizers in Mississippi prepare for rising food demands in one of the most food insecure states.

On Wednesday morning in Vicksburg, hours before Mayor George Flaggs declared a civil emergency in response to the outbreak, over a hundred teachers, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and other volunteers came together to bag up 5,000 lunches to bring to children’s homes while schools are closed.

At one of the bus stops in nearby Bovina, Josie Williams drove up with her sixth-grade grandson to pick up a lunch.

“We’ve had to buy extra for him because normally he would eat breakfast and lunch at school,” Williams said. “If (parents) aren’t working there’s no extra money for it, so it’s like a snowball effect. So it’s a good program.”

In Mississippi, more than one in five kids are food insecure, according to Feeding America. The Vicksburg Warren School District deployed over 30 school buses to deliver the meals to students’ bus stops. The meals are available for all children 18 or younger.

“I’m just worried about our babies, our kids at school, that they’re getting all their meals,” said Carolyn Walker, an assistant teacher at Bovina Elementary School helping distribute lunches. “We’re used to seeing them five days a week, so we’re just making sure they’re being taken care of.”

The school district plans to deliver lunches every Monday through Friday until school returns, and will be reimbursed through federal dollars, according to a district spokesperson. Wednesday’s meal included a hamburger, grape tomatoes, cantaloupe, milk, juice and a cereal bar for breakfast.

“It just soothes my soul to see everyone pull together to help our kids,” said Kelvin Carter, a coach at Vicksburg High School who volunteered Wednesday. “It’s really important, because I know at the high school level kids last week were already missing meals. Some of these kids look forward to breakfast and lunch every single day.”

Schools across the state are continuing to serve meals to children, even non-students (click here for the full list).

With the state’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 coming just last week, food pantries at this point are fully stocked around Mississippi, the second-most food insecure state in the U.S.

“Right now we’re doing business as usual,” said Marilyn Blackledge, director of external affairs at the Mississippi Food Network. “We’re working on plans for mobile pantry distributions, backpack meal kits and things like that. It’s just now hit Mississippi and we’re still formulating our plans.”

Mississippi Food Network, which collects food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture as well as donations from individuals and grocery stores, has enough food in its warehouse to last several weeks, Blackledge said. The nonprofit stocks over 400 pantries in the state.

In Jackson, Stewpot executive director Jill Buckley said they anticipate a growing demand.

“We have everything we need for now,” she said. “What I anticipate will happen as the crisis lengthens and resources are stretched thinner and thinner as it goes longer, people are out of work, children are home longer, that the demand will increase for us.”

Stewpot has already made adjustments, such as giving food in to-go plates, as well as asking any new volunteers and volunteers who are older than 65, have underlying medical conditions or have recently traveled to not come at this time.

Buckley said she’s most concerned about the virus entering one of the organization’s homeless shelters, where she said there’s a disproportionate rate of people with underlying conditions such as COPD, asthma and diabetes.

“I think that the impact really won’t be felt immediately,” she said. “It will be kind of rolling, and we as organizers and responders are going to have to be nimble and agile and stay in touch with one another, and make the adjustments necessary as we go, because this is all so new to us.”

In other efforts around food distribution, the Hattiesburg-based non-profit Extra Table uses donations to supply food to 40 food and soup kitchens in the state, and is planning to stock up on extra product in wake of the outbreak, said executive director Martha Allen. Since the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino in Biloxi closed, Extra Table has coordinated to deliver the casino’s food to pantries in the Gulf Coast.

[Click here to enter Mississippi Today’s COVID-19 Resource Portal.]

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